Back in 2000, when Tom Sietsema became the restaurant critic at The Washington Post, there was a distinct hole in D.C.’s restaurant scene: “You’ve always been able to eat well, cheaply and on an expense account,” he explains, but “the main thing that was missing was neighborhood action”—those local dining destinations with clusters of excellent, reliable spots.
That has changed over the past several years, and nowhere is this more evident than in Shaw. A historically African American neighborhood next to and north of the Convention Center, it was devastated by the riots that followed the death of Martin Luther King. In recent years, commercial spaces, which stood empty for years, have been converted and offered at affordable rates, drawing new neighbors and young, ambitious chefs, who have helped make it a dining destination. “I could write week after week about restaurants in Shaw,” Sietsema says. In fact, three out of the top 10 restaurants in his fall dining guide this year are in the area.
Places like All-Purpose, where Michael Friedman is fermenting pizza dough for three days, and The Dabney, where Jeremiah Langhorne is pioneering a revival of Mid-Atlantic cuisine, are putting D.C. on the map not only with locals, but with a certain anonymous restaurant guide as well.
Eggplant parm gets updated at All-Purpose | Photo: Courtesy of All-Purpose
On October 13, a handful of D.C. chefs received a call from the lead Michelin inspector with news of who would be receiving the city’s first stars—a major feat for the area. Around lunchtime, a young guy wearing a staff shirt from Smoked & Stacked, a newly opened pastrami shop in Shaw, spotted Langhorne, who had just received a star.
Rushing down Ninth Street, he called out, “You work at The Dabney, right? Congrats on the star, man. That’s great.” They shook hands, and the man headed back to Smoked & Stacked, half a block away.
That moment is a glimpse into the community of chefs that has also developed in the neighborhood—who, when they aren’t at their own restaurants, are often grabbing a meal or a drink at a neighboring spot. We asked these chefs to point us to their favorite Shaw go-tos. Follow their guide, and you will no doubt eat well.
Smoked & Stacked: Start your morning at Marjorie Meek-Bradley’s pastrami shop (which she opened because she missed the breakfast sandwiches in New York) for “a great egg and pastrami sandwich,” Michael Friedman, chef of nearby All-Purpose, says. He’s referring to The New Yorker: well-spiced, house-smoked pastrami with Comté, spicy pepper jelly and a fried egg, all on a soft house-baked brioche bun.
Marjorie Meek-Bradley turns out well spiced pastrami at Smoked & Stacked |Photo: Courtesy of Smoked & Stacked
Compass Coffee: If you find yourself in a pastrami-induced food coma, a cold brew or Nutella mocha from Compass, a quick 10-minute walk north of Smoked & Stacked, will bring you back. The coffee shop, which doubles as a roastery and is run by two ex-Marines is “where I did a lot of planning for [Smoked & Stacked],” Meek-Bradley says. “I would bring my laptop over there and meet with people and design things.” The owners, Michael Haft and Harrison Suarez, are more than happy for their café to be where the action is. “We love it; it’s fun,” Suarez says.
El Rinconcito Cafe: This restaurant is bustling at lunch with those looking for a taste of El Salvador-meets-Tex-Mex, which sit side by side on the menu. “They have pictures on their menu, and I love it.” When Kwame Onwuachi, who is opening his much-anticipated Shaw Bijou a few blocks away, is having a bad day, he orders chicken with a stack of rice and salty refried beans. Otherwise, he goes for the nacho supreme (“so good”) or the mariscada salvadorena, a soup loaded with shrimp, crab, clams and catfish that tastes distinctly of the sea and is large enough for everyone at the table to share.
Chercher: March up a flight of stairs to this Ethiopian restaurant, and you will be met with the smell of berbere, a spice blend made from chiles, garlic and ginger that’s essential to Ethiopian cooking. Follow Onwuachi’s lead and get the yebeg we’t, a lamb stew heady with spices that are both burning and addictive, and an order of the nearly candied green beans and carrots, which help temper some of that heat.
La Colombe: Grab a nitro cold brew at the D.C. outpost of this Philly-based coffee shop tucked away in Blagden Alley. “You’re in a place that feels like it’s happening, but you feel like you’re the only one who knows it’s there,” Eric Ziebold, chef of Kinship and Métier, says.
Buttercream Bakeshop: For a sugar fix, make your way to Buttercream Bakeshop, which nearly every chef in the neighborhood visits for playful takes on baked goods, like the Happy Camper, a s’mores bar that stacks fudgy chocolate ganache and a cloud-like layer of lightly singed fluff atop a cookie-crumble crust.
Espita Mezcaleria: Stop by this Mexican restaurant and bar, which “probably has the best selection of mescals in the country,” Langhorne says. Try the ginger and cucumber cocktail, which zings with intensity as you prepare for the evening ahead. If you’re hungry, grab one of the smoked pork jowl tacos with mustard oil mayo served in a fresh, made-in-house corn tortilla.
The Dabney: If he ever had a night when he wasn’t in the kitchen, chef Friedman says he would spend his evening here. With The Dabney, Langhorne is looking deep into his family and the mid-Atlantic’s past to revitalize the region’s cooking with dishes like charred bok choy with hush puppies, bread-and-butter pickles, bacon and ramp mayo, and an ever-evolving hearth-roasted vegetable salad made with 15 to 40 in-season, local vegetables.
Jeremiah Lanhorne keeps a garden atop The Dabney | Photo: Scott Suchman
All-Purpose: Friedman, meanwhile, has brought a piece of his own native New Jersey to Shaw at All-Purpose, where Italian American classics are given a refresh in the form of three-day fermented pizza dough and a nontraditional eggplant Parm served in a ramekin topped with crispy bread crumbs. Don’t miss the Gem lettuce Caesar salad, Meek-Bradley says.
Dessert fit for a party at Kinship | Photo: Greg Powers
Kinship: Traveling solo? You’ll have to “walk down Seventh Street and find some people to bring with you, because [that’s] the best way to experience Kinship,” Ziebold says. While the menu changes often, the roast chicken with bread crumbs and garlic that get stuffed under the skin is perfect for a group. And if it’s on the menu that night, try the mushroom torchon that Langhorne says is “outrageous. There are very few things . . . that I’m baffled by how good they are and how they’re made. That baffled me.”
The All-Important Nightcap
Columbia Room: Derek Brown combines three ideas under one roof. There’s the casual, outdoor Punch Garden; the Spirits Library, where drinkers can try vintage options; and the high-end Tasting Room (reservations required), where a cocktail tasting menu is served alongside snacks like a chocolate-covered shiso leaf and eucalyptus smoked trout with a smoked egg. It’s perfect for a date night, Kinship’s Celia Laurent says.
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